EDWIN HARROWELL - the 'orphan' of the South Seas

The Harrowell family background

The Harrowell family first appeared in Epsom at the end of the 1830s. James Harrowell was born in about 1798 in Whipsnade, Bedfordshire. He had moved to Brighton at some stage, where his first child was born in about 1834, and he then became a butler to Justice of the Peace, Henry Gosse, in Church Street, Epsom, a position he held from at least 1841 to 1861. His wife Mary (born in about 1812) lived at various addresses in the town with their growing family, which eventually numbered at least eleven children, and at one stage she was keeping a lodging house in the High Street.

James died in 1867. His eldest son, also James (born in about 1837), was a solicitor's managing clerk and married Anne Lucock, daughter of Epsom poulterer, William Lucock. James Junior died in 1868, leaving Anne with four very young sons.

William Lucock's Business Card
William Lucock's Business Card
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Anne initially took the children to Dorking, where she appears to have been a schoolteacher (her niece, Lissie Barnard, was with her - see below), but by the 1881 census the family was scattered. Anne was working as a domestic housekeeper in Suffolk and the eldest son, James William, born in 1861, was an invoice clerk in a biscuit factory, living in Reading (he died in 1889). The next son, William Lucock, a court clerk, was with his aunt Mary Ann back in Epsom (Mary Ann Harrowell ran a small private school). William Lucock Harrowell died in 1928 and was buried in Epsom Cemetery. Ernest, born in 1864, was with his uncle and aunt, William and Elizabeth Barnard, also in Epsom. He died in 1931. None of them seems to have married.

Elizabeth Barnard was Anne Harrowell's sister and for many years the Barnards had an assortment of Elizabeth's nieces and nephews with them, helping in their bakery and confectionery business. When William and Elizabeth Barnard died (Elizabeth in 1888 and William in 1898) their daughter Lissie, Ernest Harrowell and various Kitchens (who were children of Hannah, sister of Anne and Elizabeth) stayed together, first in Epsom (1901 census) and then Croydon (1911 census), and probably until the last one of them died in the mid 1930s. Indeed, it seems that William Lucock Harrowell joined them in Croydon at some stage, as he had the same address when he died in 1928.

The youngest son was Edwin, born in Epsom in 1867, and he was just an infant when his father died. It does look as if Anne fell on progressively harder times after that, given that she was an employed, live-in housekeeper by 1881. The three older children were accommodated elsewhere, but presumably she could not find a home for Edwin and in the 1881 census he was in an orphanage in Wanstead, Essex, aged 14.

Edwin's story

The orphanage

Snaresbrook Crown Court (formerly the Infant Orphan Asylum)
Snaresbrook Crown Court (formerly the Infant Orphan Asylum).
Image: © Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Placing Edwin in an orphanage was not as straightforward as one might suppose. During the 19th century most orphanages were for children of working-class families, but there was nowhere for young middle-class children to go, albeit that they might have been left just as destitute and homeless as an apparently poorer child. The Infant Orphan Asylum at Wanstead (the building is now Snaresbrook Crown Court), on the edge of Epping Forest, was founded by the Reverend Andrew Reed in 1843 precisely for this purpose. However, admission was not simply a case of applying. The institution had subscribers who, in return for their money, were entitled to vote on which children were admitted. This led to surviving parents and relatives 'lobbying' for votes, whereby they paraded with placards or distributed printed leaflets stating the child's case. A leaflet was issued in the case of Edwin Harrowell and was successful. He was admitted to the Asylum in about 18731. In 1881 the institution had over 600 children from all over the UK in its care, ranging in age from one year to 14 years. Since Edwin was 14 in that year, it is likely that he was cast out into the world quite soon afterwards. What happened to him between 1881 and 1891 is not known, but in the 1891 census he was a commercial clerk in lodgings in Reading (possibly he had gone there to join his brother, James William, but, as mentioned previously, James William had died in 1889).


In September 1895 Edwin, then aged about 28, sailed from London to Wellington, New Zealand on the steamship 'Tokomaru'2 and on arrival took up farming. His emigration may well have been connected with the fact that another Epsom Harrowell, his uncle Henry (see http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/harrowell-henry-463 ), had gone to Australia in about 1892 and was running a prestigious Sydney company that manufactured equipment for the then new enterprise of mechanised sheep-dipping. Henry opened another branch of the company in New Zealand in 1894 and lived there for many years afterwards.

The Boer War

Edwin in the Boer War
Edwin in the Boer War

In 1899 Edwin was farming at a place called Papatoetoe, now a suburb of Auckland, where he enlisted in the infantry and was shipped off to South Africa with a New Zealand Contingent, to help the British fight the Second Boer War. He was originally a sergeant in the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.

During the South African campaign he was awarded the Queen's South Africa Medal and the King's South Africa Medal (South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902 Clasps)3.

In 1900 Edwin, now a captain, had joined the Provisional Transvaal Constabulary. Little is known about this unit but it was apparently made up of a collection of recruits from various Army units and the Natal Police and was established after the siege and capture of Pretoria in June of that year. He then returned to New Zealand, but was back in South Africa in 1901 with the New Zealand 7th Contingent as a sergeant. He soon became a captain once more.

It is worth mentioning at this point that he probably did not bear his mother any grudge for placing him in the orphanage, as he habitually listed her as next of kin on his military records.

Subsequently Edwin went to Queensland, Australia and joined the Mounted Constabulary.

The New Hebrides
Map of the Southern Pacific
Map of the Southern Pacific.
Image: Wikipedia

Soon afterwards Edwin was appointed to take charge of the rifle associations in Fiji and then became Police Commissioner in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific (now called Vanuatu). In the early 1900s he was responsible for training the first Colonial native police force there.

In 1907 the author Jack London and his wife, Charmian, were in their ketch, 'The Snark', sailing the South Seas. Edwin was at that time in Port Vila, the capital of the New Hebrides, and Charmian wrote in her book 'The Log of the Snark'.
'We called upon the Acting English Resident, Mr. Jacomb, an Oxford man, and upon the French Resident, Charles Noufflard. They returned our calls next day, also Captain Harrowell, English chief of the native constabulary, and we were entertained by them ashore. Captain Harrowell seized Jack's hand in both his and cried: "And this is Jack London! Why, he's a household word in England!" We dined with him and Mr. Jacomb, all in faultless evening dress, with noiseless Chinese servants, and a white silk punkah waving overhead.'
Jack and Charmian London
Jack and Charmian London c. 1911
Image Source: http://thenostalgialeague.com/olmag/london-the-scarlet-plague.html via Wikipedia

Lest one might think that life in the New Hebrides was one long social round amidst beach scenes out of 'South Pacific', the reality was very different for the colonials, both officials and settlers. It was not uncommon for settlers to be slaughtered by bush natives and much of the terrain was inhospitable or impenetrable.

Professor Margaret Critchlow Rodman writes in her paper 'My only weapon being a pencil'4
'On 29 May 1908 Edward Jacomb, a tall lean lawyer in his early 30s who was serving as Assistant to the British Resident Commissioner (BRC) in the New Hebrides, wrote to his mother describing a `most interesting trip' he had just made to the island of Ambrym to apprehend an alleged murderer named Berk. The trip was long: two days on a packet-boat from the capital, Port Vila, to the island of Paama; a weekend with the Rev. Maurice Frater, a Presbyterian missionary who had reported the murder; an abortive trip to the wrong part of Ambrym; and finally four-and-a-half hours rowing a whaleboat across a glassy sea to the accused man's village. Jacomb went on:
On entering the village I found the object of my search without the slightest difficulty. My arrival seemed to astonish the inhabitants pretty considerably. The village is about as primitive as it is possible for a village to be; the huts are low and can only be entered on hands and knees; the natives are practically naked, and most of them were strolling about smoking clay pipes charged with black plug [tobacco], and with Sneider rifles at full cock over their shoulders. There were a number of piccaninnies [children], pigs and fowls roaming about in the mud. I must confess I did not care for the environment, my only weapon being a pencil. However I made the best of it and sat down on a tree trunk and spent half an hour questioning Berk as to the alleged shooting of his wife. He made no effort to deny it, but I failed to discover his motive.
Jacomb arrested Berk, travelled with the confessed murderer back to Port Vila, and handed him over to Captain Edwin Harrowell, who was in the process of training the first British colonial police force. Once again, Jacomb asked Berk why he had killed his wife. The Melanesian `wrinkled his face, and the wrinkling soon turned to an engaging smile: "Mi no savvy", he said.'
Professor Rodman goes on to say:-
'The production of the prison and of the police was closely linked in the colonial New Hebrides. Neither existed on the British side prior to 1907 when Captain Harrowell was appointed Commandant of the British Division of the New Hebrides Constabulary. He lived with Jacomb and the Resident Commissioner, Merton King, in the British Residency on Iririki Island in Port Vila harbour. Jacomb, who never liked Harrowell, described him as `a fine figure of a man, with a magnificent moustache but, unfortunately, a balding head'. In 1907, Harrowell was about 38 years old, `a bachelor, a teetotaller, a heavy smoker of pipes and cigars, a non-reader even of newspapers, and devoid of any interests outside his as yet non-existent police force'. The first policeman was a West Indian named Alcide, whom Jacomb `found derelict in Vila and handed to Harrowell as the nucleus of his future police force'. By the end of the year, Jacomb had recruited nine more policemen; the Resident Commissioner found another four, and by 7 May 1908 there was a total of 16 British policemen. Harrowell set to training them and within a month had `worked wonders with the very raw material available'. A large grass house was built to accommodate the police on Iririki Island near the British Residency.'
The New Zealand Free Lance newspaper of 11 July 19085 wrote the following about Edwin:-
'The average New Zealander is a born wanderer. Take Captain Edwin Harrowell, Commandant of Native Constabulary at Vila, New Hebrides. He has been there for the past four or five months, knocking the [word deleted] armed police into shape, and although he writes to a Wellington friend to say that the New Hebridean native is by no means a bright person, his regiment of police now drill a great deal better than the average New Zealand volunteer corps! But it will be admitted that New Zealand volunteers are not great on drill, won't it, and that the infantryman in this particular town is (for show purposes) the most shambling soldier possible.

To revert to Edwin Harrowell. In, a remote part of his career he was a Berkshire Mounted Rifleman. Then, he took a notion to go to Queensland, and there became a mounted policeman, and got the beautiful dark mahogany complexion that suits him so well. Edwin got tired of police work in Sugarland, and drifted to Auckland (or back to Auckland). Then he took to farming, and joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles. Then he rushed off with the first batch of New Zealand warriors to Africa and glory. Was a sergeant in that Contingent and won a commission in subsequent corps. Went home to Berkshire, and had a great time. Rushed back to New Zealand, and became adjutant of the Auckland District, or something of the kind.

Then Edwin, feeling cold in Auckland, went to Fiji, and became organising officer for defence rifle clubs. He was such a good hand at the game that when he had organised everything handy he was asked to go to the New Hebrides to tackle the Darktown police job. These Hebridean police are a quaint business apparently. There are two sections of them- one lot under British officers and another lot under French. They are a united force, living in the same barracks, and would combine in case of hostilities. This is "l'entente cordiale" again.'
In 1911 there was a rebellion in Santo (Espiritu Santo), New Hebrides. Edwin and a combined contingent of French and native police mounted an operation to capture the principal chief, Thingaroo, involving many hours of marching through dense bush. The enterprise was a disaster. The guides deserted, the police were ambushed, several native auxiliaries were wounded and a civilian accompanying the party was shot twice. Thingaroo escaped and the attempts to capture him were abandoned. It was conceded that, given the nature of the terrain (mountains and tropical rainforests), the natives held the upper hand, especially if they were armed with guns, as in this instance.6

The First World War
Edwin does not seem to have returned to New Zealand for any length of time during his stay in the New Hebrides, but on the outbreak of the First World War he became a Captain and then a Major with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In 1915 he was Second in Command of the Auckland Infantry Battalion, but was wounded in both arms at Gallipoli and invalided home via England, and eventually recovered. By 1917 he was Assistant Military Secretary to the Commissioner of the garrison in Samoa.

Major Edwin Harrowell

Edwin's family

Edwin married fairly late in life, in Samoa in about 1917. His wife was (Florence) Camilla Steele, a nursing sister at a hospital there7. She had served on a hospital ship during the First World War. Edwin and Camilla had a son, Dudley Steele Harrowell, born in 1919 in Auckland. Edwin remained in the Colonial Service, occupying administrative positions at Ocean Island and Fanning Island (two islands in the central Pacific which are now part of the republic of Kiribati).

Group at the garden party given by Her Excellency Lady Liverpool to the staff of the Hospital Ship Maheno in 1917.  Camilla Steele is on the left.
Group at the garden party given by Her Excellency Lady Liverpool to the staff of the
Hospital Ship Maheno in 1917. Camilla Steele is on the left.

Dudley was educated at King's College, Auckland and Edwin retired to Auckland with his wife in the late 1930s. Dudley enlisted in the New Zealand Army as a gunner in February 1939 and that same year he was sent to the Royal Military College of Australia in Duntroon, Canberra, Australia for officer training. He passed out as a Lieutenant in the New Zealand Staff Corps. Edwin died in Auckland on 7 August 1941. His final address, oddly enough, was in the suburb of Epsom in Auckland.8 He was buried in O'Neill's Point Cemetery, Bayswater, Auckland.

Epsom, Auckland, with Mount Eden in the background
Epsom, Auckland, with Mount Eden in the background.
Image author: Follash, source Wikipedia

Dudley, having served regimental postings in New Zealand and Fiji, was sent to the Middle East, arriving in Egypt on 5 January 1943. He was killed before he could even fire a shot, shortly after the second battle of El Alamein, during the Allies' final push to drive the Axis powers out of North Africa, at Tebega Gap, Tunisia, on 26 March 1943. He was buried in the Sfax9 War Cemetery, Tunisia.

Lieutenant D S Harrowell

Dudley Harrowell's grave
Dudley Harrowell's grave

Camilla died on 26 December 1961, aged 80, and was also buried at O'Neill's Point Cemetery.

Linda Jackson © October 2011

All photographs and information concerning the careers of Edwin and Dudley Harrowell courtesy and copyright of Auckland War Memorial Museum 2011. from their Cenotaph Database


1. Source: Catalogues of the National Archives and University of Nottingham

2. This ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in 1915 whilst anchored in the roads off Le Havre. It was carrying cargo only. No lives were lost.

3. These were normal campaign medals at the time, but conditions were hard and it was fairly unusual to have both. Few people served throughout the whole war, which took place from October 1899 to May 1902, spanning the end of Queen Victoria's reign and the accession of King Edward V11, but Edwin did, apart from a brief return to Auckland in 1901.

4. The Journal of Pacific History. Issue: June 1998. Quoted by permission of Professor Rodman

5. http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=NZFL19080711.2.2&cl=&srpos=0&e=-------10--1----0--

6. Source: National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15229989

7. Source: Kai Tiaki, the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, 3 July 1917 - website of the National Library of New Zealand

8. Source: The Evening Post, 11 August 1941 - website of the National Library of New Zealand

9. Sfax is a city about 168 miles south-east of Tunis

George Gissing
George Gissing
EW Martin
EW Martin
Holman Hunt
Holman Hunt
Lady Berkeley
Lady Berkeley
Rooths House
Rooth's House
Singeing Beard
Singeing Beard
Chamiers of Epsom
Chamiers Epsom